The Great North Woods were ablaze with color when I visited the Rolling Dog Farm in Lancaster, New Hampshire. Too bad most of its horses and dogs are blind.
When I first heard of a sanctuary for disabled animals, I wondered whether it crossed a line, going beyond compassion. The animals, rescued from shelters all around the U.S., are blind or deaf or have orthopedic and neurological problems.
“Many times, the day an animal arrives here is the same day it was supposed to be euthanized,” said Alayne Marker, who co-founded Rolling Dog with her husband, Steve Smith.
Part of me was thinking that ending an animal’s suffering might be more humane. Such thoughts are erased within a minute of meeting the animals. For one thing, there is no discernible suffering.
In the paddock, six horses are munching on apples fallen from trees outside the fence. When we enter, the braver ones amble over with an odd gait, heads turned slightly sideways, as they tend to lead with their ears.
“People think of a 1,000-pound animal that can’t see as a train wreck waiting to happen,” Smith says. “With most horses, if you give them enough time in a safe environment, they can adapt to blindness and have a wonderful quality of life, as you can see.”
I can see. The horses may not fully appreciate their idyllic setting, but they seem happy -- and very healthy.
Lena the Mentor
Lena is a pure-bred registered quarter-horse who went blind from what sounds like abuse. Her trainer had tried to correct her propensity to rear up by making her tip over, conditioning her to associate rearing with falling. Repeated blows to her head during this “training” destroyed her optic nerve.
Lena is now a mentor to younger newcomers, teaching them social skills essential for members of a herd. “The blind leading the blind” is a standard joke here.
Marker and Smith founded the Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary in Montana in 2000, and moved the operation to New Hampshire last year, changing “ranch” to “farm” to reflect regional nomenclature. Compared with Montana’s vast spaces, the New England site is much closer to essential services, such as vets and grocery stores, saving time and fuel.
They have 7 horses and about 30 dogs on their 132-acre farm, plus one full-time staffer to help with the endless chores. Last year their operating costs ran about $500,000, all raised through donations. Most of the animals are up for adoption via Petfinder.com, and the farmers spread the word through their website, Facebook and a quarterly newsletter.
Other residents include some barn cats, a brood of laying hens and 20 Holsteins that graze placidly on the verdant hillside behind the house. The cattle aren’t pampered pets, however, but future food for the dogs.
The Holsteins were purchased from a local dairy farmer who had no use for bull calves. Smith and Marker rescued the animals, which would have otherwise had a short and cramped existence before being processed as veal. Instead, they are raised with tender care in an open paddock overlooking the White Mountains. They are even given names.
“Our view is, what’s the alternative?” Smith says. “What’s better than raising them yourself and knowing exactly how they were treated, that you did everything possible to give them as humane a life as possible?”
Smith and Marker say the most misunderstood animals here are the ones that are both blind and deaf. Most people can’t imagine that a life in darkness and silence can be worth living, so they are difficult to get adopted.
Tracy and Hepburn
I meet Spencer and Katie, an inseparable pair of lively deaf and blind dachshunds, but I don’t think I would have been aware of either disability if I hadn’t been told. They seem happy, and why not? With a diet of grass-fed beef and fresh eggs, they’re eating better than most Americans.
“We always tell people, just give them a chance, all they want to be is a dog or a horse and just get on with life, and love and be loved,” says Marker. “That’s really what it’s all about, and we give them that chance here.”
(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)